Story Jonah Raskin
Photos Steven Krause
You could, if you wanted to be absurdly simplistic, divide Sonoma Valley residents into two factions.
One group would be die-hard devotees of the Friday morning Sonoma Valley Certified Farmers Market, next to Arnold Field, with its singular focus on farm-fresh produce, free-range eggs, wild-caught fish, and grass-fed beef, where an entire carton of Little Gem lettuce can disappear in seconds and people wait 10 deep for one of Mike the Bejkr’s wood-oven pretzels.
The second group would be equally passionate about the jubilant, raucous, party-flavored Tuesday night Valley of the Moon Farmers Market on the Plaza, with its music, wine, food trucks, kettle corn, fresh oysters, picnics on the lawn, a smattering of produce and a high-energy, communal buzz.
Many people, of course, love and attend both markets, but the case can be made that the Friday morning market is the place where you can hear most clearly the voices of Sonoma Valley without loud background music and the roar of the crowd.
On a recent morning, shoppers lined up at Paul’s Produce to snag all the newly picked Little Gem lettuce that was selling faster than proverbial hot cakes.
“We’re the most popular stand because we’re local, we’re fresh, we’re organic, and we have abundance and variety,” Justine Filipello says. She knows. She’s been selling produce for years.
Candi Edmondson, Paul Wirtz’s wife and partner and a visual artist in her own right, has been at the Friday morning market for so long she doesn’t remember exactly when she started. That’s OK. Year after year, seasons blur.
Summertime is a great time to shop at the market, especially when local tomatoes are ripe and in abundance, though you can’t beat fall when vendors sell persimmons, walnuts, squashes, pumpkins, decorative gourds, and more.
Most of the action takes place from 9 to 10 a.m., though the market runs until 12:30. Hector sells honey, the Patch sells produce, the Bohemian Mushroom Man sells baskets and baskets of fabulous fungi, and more than a dozen artisans sell jewelry, soap, ceramics, and more.
Hilda Swartz, the venerable manager of the Friday morning market, is good on names and dates. “This market started in 1985,” she says. “I’ve been here since 1987. We have the best board members: Hannah Breall, Luke Carnela, Jesus Hernandez, Ann Hollister, Jill Keiffe, Austin and Missy Lely, Thale MacRostie, and Gary Peter. Plus Russ Bedford, my assistant, is the best ever.”
Hilda doesn’t do a great deal of publicity, but she hands out pens that say, “Sonoma Valley Certified Farmers Market, 707.538.7023 and cell 707.321.7549.”
There are 37 different vendors this summer morning, and at least 10 times as many shoppers, some of whom, like Isa Jacobi, fly by so fast they hardly seem present. There are quirky shoppers, too, like the cook who hand-picked and purchased $37 worth of radishes for a crudités she planned to serve her guests at noon. That’s a lot of radishes!
Opposite Paul’s Produce, at the stand for Bee-Well Farms, Missy Lely sells vegetable starts, acorn squash, Green Globe artichokes, along with herbs such as sage, thyme, and Thai basil.
“Four years ago, we started small and we’ve gotten bigger every year,” Missy says. “I’ve been to almost all of the local markets in Petaluma and Santa Rosa, and this one is my favorite. Plus, I think it’s cool that my husband’s grandfather used to run the market with Hilda.” Indeed, the Friday morning market runs in the Lely family.
At the stand next to Paul’s Produce, Jesus Hernandez sells the lush, beautiful flowers that he cultivates on his three-acre parcel on Napa Road. “I grow from May until the first frost in the fall,” Jesus says. “I don’t use a greenhouse. My flowers are all natural and they come direct to the market from the field.”
Stephen Davy comes down to the market from his home on Sonoma Mountain. Once a Chicago resident, he moved to Sonoma in 1996 to escape the cold, windy winters. “This market is fabulous,” he says. “It’s here year-round, and almost all the produce is tied to local farms.” He adds, “Vegetables in Sonoma are crazy good. The whole world would be a better place if people had access to the kind of produce that’s available here.”
Maria Barakat, a private chef originally from Oklahoma, buys vegetables for herself and for the meals she prepares for her clients at their own homes. She also cooks for Scribe Winery on Denmark Street. “This is the very best place in town for veggies,” Maria says.
With customers like her, there’s little if any need for the Friday market to advertise. Mike Zakowski’s breads—baguettes, pain biologique, and Khorasan—speak for themselves, as do the dairy products from Strauss, and the creamy cheeses from the Petaluma Creamery which are non-GMO and organic.
“My mom, Georgia Gary, was a vender here in the 1980s,” Peter Gary says. “I come here for the people and for the sense of community.” His younger brother, Larry, owns the Creamery and on Fridays stays behind and keeps an eye on the cows.
The market provides a home and a haven for newcomers, too. Chelsea Pearson grew up in L.A. Now she works at Oak Hill Farm in the fields, planting and harvesting, and at the Friday market, selling. “It’s easy to fall in love with farming in the Valley,” she says. “Oak Hill is like a nature preserve.”
Ken Brown, Sonoma’s ex-mayor and a radio show host on KSVY, shows up at the Friday market come rain or come shine. This morning, he’s wearing a T-shirt that reads, “We’re all immigrants.” At Paul’s Produce, he buys lettuce, beets, and broccoli. “It’s a mitzvah to come here,” he says. For those standing around him, including Candi Edmondson, her son Quinten Cohen, and Justine Filipello, he explains, “A mitzvah is a blessing.” Shoppers, lookers, and talkers who come to the Friday morning market feel blessed, indeed.
Sonoma Valley Certified Farmers Market. 241 First Street West, Sonoma. Year-round, Fridays 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., http://www.svcfm.org.